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GEORGE SHEARING

Lullaby of Birdland -
The Shearing Touch

A film by Jill Marshall

ARTHAUS MUSIK 109217

 

 

Specially shot performances and archive clips feature music spanning the six decades of his remarkable career - George Shearing, one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists – who also had a wide knowledge of and performing experience of classical music.

Edited and presented by Melvyn Bragg.

rec. 1994 as a London Weekend Television South Bank Show filmed in studio plus at Pizza on the Park in London,

Picture format:4:3, Region: free; high definition Blu-ray Disc 25GB PCM Stereo [50 mins]


This is a truly delightful DVD and it will certainly figure in my recordings of the year.

George Shearing is revealed as a multi-talented musician with a warm personality and a winning sense of humour. Born blind, in Battersea, London, in 1919 he was the ninth child of a coalman. His family had no musical background whatsoever. At an early age he had an inquisitive nature; intensely interested in sounds, he tossed bottles out of his home’s second floor window to discover what the breaking glass sounded like in all its overtones – he wryly added that milk bottles represented classical music while beer bottles were for jazz. His father bought him his first piano for £5 and George banged on it with a hammer. Later, his most appreciated music teacher sagely forecast that he would shine in jazz music and that teacher only confirmed that opinion when, some years later, George met him again to tell him he had played classical concertos with a number of orchestras. As a young man, still in England, George went on to play in prestigious venues such as Park Lane’s Grosvenor House Hotel, playing ballads by Ivor Novello in the first half of his programmes and jazz in the other.

George also played the piano accordion but without real fans. As he put it, “A true gentlemen knows how to play the accordion but doesn’t”

But America beckoned and soon he was regarded almost as more American than the Americans playing American jazz as though born to it. He cheekily asked Charlie Parker, “ What do you want to blow, Bird?” Parker rightly felt the young upstart needed pulling down a peg or two. “Can you put your fingers where your mouth is? How about playing ‘All the Things You Are’ in five sharps?” Shearing commented: “Fortunately I was equipped to do that. Dizzie Gilespie once came up to George and said in oblique praise, “Do you know, you’re black?”

His fame was assured when, in 1949, he formed the George Shearing Quintet to produce jazz that was mellow and melody led and comprised: vibes, guitar, bass and drums. The Quintet made many best-selling albums. After nearly 30 years, George abandoned his ensemble saying he was playing on autopilot and wanted to explore new possibilities, teaming up with bass player Neil Swainson in the process.

The programme is filmed in what looks like a London Weekend Television studio with Melvyn Bragg interviewing him and a discussion with Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. Other scenes are shot in London rendezvous, Pizza on the Park. What comes across is George Shearing’s instinctive and spontaneous talent, effortlessly spinning off transitions and modulations. In a scene shot in the crypt of Gloucester Cathedral he starts playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata commingling its line with Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ keeping both running simultaneously, one line in each hand.

George is seen with his wife Ellie Geffert, a classical singer. “George is a wonderful accompanist,” she enthuses. “He knows when a singer breathes. He never pushes you or drags you.” “He once embarrassed me at a concert that featured us both,” she smiles. “I sang Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, in the first half and when he got up to perform he played the Vocalise and made it segue into ‘Love is a Many Splendoured Thing!” Later we see a clip of George accompanying Mel Tormé singing ‘It Might as Well be Spring’ when suddenly George introduces a few bars of Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens into it. Ellie remarks that “I couldn’t afford to hire him as an accompanist, so I married him”. It was their habit to spend much time in England living in the Gloucestershire countryside and Ellie considered that in spite of a being a naturalised American, George was English through and through.

The programme includes Shearing performing parts of his outstanding hits including ‘Lullaby of Birdland’, Melancholy Baby’, ‘September in the Rain’, and ‘Donna Lee.’

George Shearing was knighted in 2007. He died of heart failure in New York at the age of 91.

A truly delightful programme and one I know I will watch again and again

Ian Lace



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